Casa Kendrick is in Texas for Xmas. Last night, I attended Christmas Eve services at something I once thought was a non sequitur: A large Lutheran church. I mean, it was the size of most Baptist churches back in the Carolinas. We attended the 7:30PM (third of four) Christmas Eve service of the day, and it was packed and there was every expectation by my in-laws in the choir that the 10PM service would be just as packed.
My irreverent humor naturally gravitated to what Texas Baptist churches must look like. They must be really huge. I pictured something basketball arena-sized with a Michael Buffer sound-alike crying out "Let's get ready to worship...." then the home team celebrants are introduced one by one. Alright, that's actually a credible enough concept for a large contemporary service (the Lutherans had theirs at 5PM, we of all people are actually too conservative to roll with that) so someone's probably already 'gone there'.
Then my appreciation for architecture took over. The church reprised the Hagia Sophia in modern abstract... a short armed cross nave, one bay for the choir on a raised stage, the orchestra parked to clockwise. A Communion dais occupied the center of the sanctuary. On the side of the dais opposite the choir was a baptismal fount, the water clear and always running. The other three arms of the nave were occupied by pews, pews and did I mention pews?
High above the choir, the nearest thing to an altar-end of the sanctuary was a single large round stain glass panel with the Greek Chi (or X cross) and a lamb nudging against it. This, too, reprised the Hagia Sophia. Above the orchestra 'corner', and the matching four intersections between the cross bays of the sanctuary, were four two-sided stain glass designs. The overall effect was of a vast, vaulting space. We were there at night; the effect during daylight must be magnificent.
Yet people do not come to Christmas Eve services for the architecture. They come for the celebration of the Nativity. And, if you are a kid, or a kid at heart, to light candles. Fire! Yay!
But first you have to 'pay to play'. That means singing, liturgy and of course the sermon.
It had been a long time since I had been in a church where there was such an animal as a music budget. This is not an essential in services.. Nowhere in the Gospels or the Epistles does it say; "Yo, don't hoard the pipes and drums - live a little!" Still, to hear Hunter's "Froeliche Weinachten" on strings and choirbells, to hear Joy to the World at the proper point between out-of-tune box piano and a Mannheim Steamroller-like synthesizer-fest, with a real live trumpet, to hear a quartet (including my father in law) belt out "Of the Father's Son Begotten"... that's good stuff. This is the Christian worship tradition at its utmost - the music.
And then there is the sermon, the heart of it all, especially poignant as the minister attempted a daunting bridge between the events of Sandy Hook and the purpose of the Nativity. I will be blunt: I'm not sure if he pulled it off. I'm not sure anyone could, when as he related, Newtown took down its town decorations as it simply did not feel right to celebrate this year. He felt that was entirely the wrong way to go, that if there was ever a time to remind us to, citing the message to the shepherds in the field, to 'fear not', it was this this particular Christmas in Connecticut.
Now, this part of the sermon got everyone's attention. The attempt to pivot to the other half of "Fear not, for I bring tidings of great joy" was a much heavier lift. The minister, I felt, was going through the motions here. He related a personal story, of having highway patrolmen on his doorstep, informing him that his teenage son had been in a car wreck and was at a hospital 18 miles away. That the police could not tell him his son's condition, even if living or dead. That, for that 18-mile drive, two parents felt ' a great fear', as he imagined those Sandy Hook parents - all of them - felt a great fear between knowing of the shooting and passing through the lottery of notification: that their sons and daughters were alive... or were not.
In the minister's instance, his son lived. His comparable experience with the parents of Newtown ends with the experience of those parents whose children lived.
All of us who have had scares involving loved ones who lived have the same limit: We can only relate to the parents of slain children so far. Past that point, it does take a miracle to reach past the gulf in their lives. None of us can produce it, or even report about it.
Bless his heart, that minister tried, with all the skills of oratory, of music, of (borrowing from "Four Weddings and a Funeral") a magnificent place of worship, of an earnest will to be inspired to speak God's will to the topic. There is no way to make sense of such a slaughter. To make a connection that, absent of comparable loss, does not and cannot exist.
Yet he tried. He attempted a hapless task to comfort the suffering, for every parent of a child among you has suffered with the Newtown parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors and classmates of those 20 dead children.
He failed in making all tears go away. In returning in some fashion the joy to the world. And the minister acknowledged this shortfall...that you can't make people be joyful. It is like the surly kids posing for a holiday picture, and the mother suddenly fed up yells 'be happy!!!" Then everyone bawls and it's game over for the photo shoot.
Joy is a gift, given always, given freely. People unpack and accept the gifts when they are able.
The minister made his failure at the impossible task into his message: The call is not on the grieving to stop mourning so everyone else doesn't have to hear it. The call is on their friends to give what joy they can, set it on the grieving families' doorsteps, and step back.
Then do it again tomorrow. and the day after tomorrow. And all the days to come.
It may never be enough. Yet we do not deny compassion to the dying, though not one kindness will extend their life a day more.
Nor should we despair of giving comfort to those who outlive their little ones. Likewise, the many lesser plights of those suffering in plain sight, though we often find it easier to avert our eyes and walk faster. We should not do that. Ever.
And that, I think is the message of Christmas. avert not thine eyes from the suffering of others. Do not excuse doing nothing on the grounds your gifts can change nothing. The attempt is the gift. The attempt is the gift of joy. The attempt matters very, very much.
So fail. Fail every chance you can to make others happy. Fail at delivering gifts of joy every chance that you have.
In a sense truer than most, that is what Christmas is about: joy to the world. A gift on the world's doorstep. What the world does with it, and gifts like it, is up to us.